Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., formally launched his presidential campaign Tuesday with a speech in Louisville. Among the notable quotes from Paul's speech was a comment seemingly meant to raise minority support by calling for reform of federal drug laws that disproportionately lead to incarceration of black Americans.
"I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed," Paul said.
Paul went on to address other topics without expanding much on what kinds of laws he meant. But given his past comments, it's not hard to guess he was talking about the war on drugs. "The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country," Paul said in November 2014. "Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown."
Lauren Galik, the Director of Criminal Justice Reform at Reason Foundation, said she was excited to hear a Republican presidential candidate campaigning on drug reform. "More than half of our federal prison population right now is there for drugs, many of which are African-American," Galik told the Washington Examiner. "African Americans are more likely to receive a sentence that carries a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment than white individuals."
Mandatory minimums disproportionately affect African American criminals compared to whites and Hispanics. "Although Black offenders in 2012 made up 26.3 percent of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, they accounted for 35.2 percent of the drug offenders still subject to that mandatory minimum at sentencing," according to the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency.
Paul not only acknowledges the problem with mandatory minimums, he's actively tried to reform them during his time in the Senate. On his campaign website, Paul touts his support of the Justice Safety Valve Act, which gives judges more discretion. "Judges can depart from mandatory minimum sentencing laws if they find that it is in the best interests of justice to do so," according to the campaign website. "This would increase judicial discretion and allow judges to make individualized determinations about the proper punishment for defendants."
Every type of drug arrest disproportionately affects nonwhites, except for methamphetamine, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Thirty percent of suspects arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration are nonwhite, although nonwhites are only 22 percent of the United States population. When suspects are sentenced for drug offenses, Blacks have an average sentence length of 96 months, 46 percent longer than the average for whites.
The racial disparity in drug arrests cannot solely be caused by disparities in usage. Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, but blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, according to the ACLU.
In spite of the clear racial disparity in the war on drugs, many potential candidates have been reluctant to come out as strongly as Paul has. "I'm just really excited that there's finally a presidential candidate who's campaigning on criminal justice reform," Galik said. "I like that he's a Republican that's bringing up race and how the criminal justice system impacts people of color. I think that's a first from a Republican presidential candidate. I hope he forces other candidates, like Hillary Clinton and other Republicans who are running, to talk about these issues."